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2010 Vision

2010 Preview | Will evangelical conservatives embrace adventure, constrain Caesar, and work alongside others who do not want to be softened and bent into perpetual childhood?

Issue: "2010 The Year Ahead," Jan. 16, 2010

I can't yet call this a trend. It's more of a hope. But the excesses of the Obama administration may be shaking evangelical conservatives out of some troublesome tendencies of recent years.

Instead of looking to government to advance our social goals, maybe we're ready to render unto Caesar only what is his. Instead of speaking about "Christian America" and the need for a "Christian party" of some sort, maybe we're coming to understand that those with a Christian worldview probably represent no more than one in every 10 Americans.

And, instead of going into a defensive crouch when our dreams are unrealized as we end up battered in the public arena, maybe we're ready to contain government aggression by building a coalition with others who also do not want to be ruled by a Caesar.

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Here's what I hope will happen: By rendering unto Caesar only what is his, older evangelicals will defend religious liberty alongside fiscal conservatives, younger evangelicals, and immigrants of recent decades. But we'll need to recognize that creating a liberty-based coalition is dangerous, not only because Caesar can strike back but because such a grouping necessarily includes people with non-Christian values and beliefs.

Let's start with where we are. The evidence of Caesar on the march is all around us. The healthcare bill might require everyone to pay for abortions, and it could shut down creative Bible-based alternatives to conventional medical insurance. Requirements that pharmacists prescribe baby-killing chemicals would drive many Christians out of their profession. Requirements that Christian agencies place children with gays for foster care or adoption have already had an impact.

Our response to aggression is sometimes a desire to be the aggressor ourselves. Many Protestants in decades past thought that they could use governmental power to achieve their goals. Thinking they could make public schools reflect their theology, our late-19th-century predecessors passed-in three-fourths of the states!-"Blaine amendments" that banned use of any governmental funds in religious private schools. Those laws in recent years have hampered Christian attempts to increase educational opportunity by using vouchers or tax credits.

Lessons of power backfiring may be finally sinking in. One reason I like last month's Manhattan Declaration-Joel Belz and I signed it-is that it emphasizes the centrality of religious liberty. Such liberty is inalienable because it is "grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image." The declaration ends, "We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's."

Only government has the police power to redefine what is Caesar's by grabbing what it should not. The Manhattan Declaration inherently backs small government-and that is the key to providing a realistic alternative to current governmental expansion. For many years we have shown in WORLD that Washington's attempts to help the poor have hurt them. We have shown that there are better ways to improve medical care for the currently uninsured population than by making it worse for the vast insured majority.

Why have the Caesar proposals from Obama and Congress gone as far as they have? I've had occasion before to quote the prescient Alexis de Tocqueville's 1830s writing about "soft despotism" in a book all college students should read, Democracy in America. De Tocqueville revered Americans but feared they might slowly submit to "an immense, protective power which . . . tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. . . . It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry."

That's not a bad description of the 2010 Obama vision of government: in de Tocqueville's words, a controlling force "thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle"-but soulless. De Tocqueville warned that an emphasis on security would leave individuals "not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided . . . a flock of timid and industrious animals." Today, any decision to leave the flock has theological, cultural, and political dimensions.

Theological: What gives us the courage to take risks? Why should we journey to where we are called instead of calling to God, leave me alone? Why should we tithe and give more than tithes, when we don't know what the coming years will bring economically? Such behavior is illogical in terms of self-preservation. It only makes sense if God has given us such a living hope in Christ's death and resurrection, and our future glory, that we do not fear putting our trust in Him.

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